Image of the decade

Mural of President Obama by artist Shepard Fairey

What artwork springs to mind as the image of the decade? Was it Martin Creed’s 2001 Turner Prize-winning exhibit of an empty gallery with the lights going on and off? Or perhaps you would nominate the 2008 installation of one of Jeff Koons’ kitsch-rather-than-cute giant puppies that dominated a stateroom in Versailles, epitomising a period when contemporary art dethroned more traditional art as the people’s favourite?

Maybe it was the extraordinary, unprecedented, ironic and iconic sight of Damien Hirst cashing in by selling a collection of his new work at Sotheby’s in London while on the other side of the Atlantic the Lehman Brothers bank collapsed?

If it was any of the above, you will probably enjoy Decade, Phaidon’s latest huge, back-breaking pictorial book documenting world events from 1 January 2000 (staff at Los Angeles County Emergency Operations Centre on alert for the Y2K bug) to 17 April 2010 (a coming-of-age ceremony in Quinceanera, Mexico).

I don’t think the image of the decade was any of the above. I think it was Shepard Fairey’s unofficial Obama Hope poster. It became not only the emblem of the presidential campaign, but also an image that captured an optimism held by many across the world that – despite war, terrorism, natural disasters and epic global financial crises – there was a future and it might be better.

Whether or not it is the defining image of the past 10 years is of course open to debate, but surely it is one of the defining images? Yet it is nowhere to be seen in Decade. There’s a whole chapter called Hope that refers to Barack Obama becoming President, but no image: a glaring omission.

Looking at the book from an arts perspective, some other major themes are missing. There are for instance no images to capture “liveness”, one of the big trends of the decade.

Mass public participation in arts events is not new, but the scale we’ve seen recently is. Promenade theatre, interactive artworks (more than 2 million people lay down and relaxed under Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project sun at Tate Modern in 2003), and festivals – book, comedy, rock or a mix of them all – are attracting millions.

The number of people attending live events is probably in part a response to the other great mass-participation phenomenon of the decade: the social network. This subject is barely covered in Decade: there’s not an image of MySpace or YouTube and only the briefest visual reference to Facebook.

Nor are there any pictures of street art, which seems an oversight – it is after all a movement that has emerged over the decade with practitioners such as Banksy becoming significant cultural and artistic players. As for graphics, the visual language of society: there is nothing.

But it is impossible to cover everything, particularly in a publication where superficiality has to be the modus operandi. Other areas appear to be well served – terrorism, war, politics, sport – but I often found myself thinking that I had seen better images of the subject depicted. For example, the photograph of Herzog de Meuron’s Beijing Olympics Birds Nest stadium made an extraordinary piece of architecture look ordinary.

Still, this is a bold, valuable publishing venture that will sit alongside my copy of Century (Phadion’s pictorial history of the 20th Century) and together will serve as a useful source for research and remembering.

Sourced from The BBC

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